Question: My son goes to college 1,000 miles from home. I try not to bother him excessively but it still annoys me and even hurts me that he doesn't answer at least half my texts although I know that he is very busy (and happy). I've talked to some parents who say that this is perfectly normal and that he's just doing what he's supposed to be doing to loosen the apron strings. But other parents tell me that he's being rude and irresponsible and that I should insist that he answer ALL texts from his mother or father at soon as he is able. They say “Really, how long does it take to bang out just a few words?" Do you think that I'm being overbearing if I suggest this?
“The Dean" came of age in the one-rotary-phone-per-family era (which did evolve into a pink-Princess phone-in-the-bedroom by the end of high school) so I haven't entirely made my peace with conducting “conversations" that involve no actual conversing. Yet, like you, I have a son at college far away, so I've found that texting is often the best method of contacting him. But, also like you, I can get frustrated or worried (or irked) when I receive no response.
So, recently, I asked several other mothers to estimate the text-return rates of their collegian offspring. Note that these are all moms who claim that they are not obsessive electronic stalkers of their progeny, and that they typically send a text message to a distant child a couple times a week, not a couple times a day (or hour!). When we compared notes, we found this pattern:
1. If the text asked for important information (e.g., “I need your passport number so I can book those tickets to Rome"), there was a 100 percent response rate, often within the hour.
2. Less urgent questions (“Are you completely over that sinus infection now?") earned about a 33 percent response rate and were frequently not answered promptly, if at all.
3. Newsy updates (“I saw your second-grade teacher in Stop & Shop this morning. She pierced her nose") netted a roughly 12 percent return.
4. Photos of a beautiful sunset over the neighbor's garage or of the cat in the dryer got about a 2 percent response.
I should also point out that, for whatever it's worth, these were all mothers of boys. And not only did we agree on the often-paltry text-return rates, but we also commonly found that, in most text exchanges with our sons, each of our own messages was a good column inch longer than our child's (i.e., two sentences versus two words). We found, too, that the discussion rarely continued beyond three or four submissions from him, and that his final text would not include any culminating comment like, “Late for class. See ya." He would, instead, simply vanish.
We all concurred that, initially, we were a little bit upset that we had watched our kids sit on the couch at home and carry on animated conversations with friends via text that lasted through an entire episode of The Walking Dead, and yet when it came to parental discourse, their replies were brief, delayed, or non-existent. But I came up with a couple theories that my fellow moms applauded and which might help to mollify your own disappointment.
#1. The Silent Treatment
My son keeps his phone on “Silent" all the time. He's explained that he gets so many texts that it would be disruptive if he heard each one come in, and I'm sure that's true. Not only do most of his friends communicate with him through texts, but also he belongs to numerous text groups. So every time a member of one of these groups chimes in with so much as a “Yeah" or a “Me, too" or just a thumbs-up, my son would hear the text arrive unless his phone is muted. I tried to figure out if it's possible to add a special ring tone for “Mom" or “Dad" while putting everyone else on “Silent." But I don't think that it is. So when my son does get around to checking his texts, there are probably a gazillion new ones, and mine may sometimes just get lost in the shuffle, not really outright ignored.
#2. The Bubble Rap
For seven summers I went to a wonderful, all-girls camp for two months. For me, it was a magical place that existed outside of my ordinary life. But every August when I returned home, I would be castigated by my parents for how rarely I wrote home during those weeks away. My mother even resorted to packing stamped/addressed postcards in my steamer trunk that required little more than a hastily scrawled “I'm alive!" Yet somehow I still resisted. With hindsight, I think that my reluctance to write home was tied to my unwillingness to acknowledge that there was another universe that existed beyond the precious bubble that was camp. Even a short note on a postcard would burst the bubble, albeit fleetingly, and remind me that my camp world wasn't my real world. Similarly, our children are building their own bubble at college. This bubble allows them to increase their independence (which is what we ultimately want, right?) and it probably helps to allay homesickness as well. Like you said before, college is a time to loosen the apron strings. Thus, even if it takes only seconds to “bang out a few words," each of these words is a finger stuck through the bubble.
So, after putting heads together with the other moms, we decided that we should cut our kids a little slack when they don't respond to every text, or if they send brief replies and then disappear. But we will take a hard line when important texts aren't answered, and—if the importance isn't obvious—it's up to us to include it in the message. Of course, we all acknowledged that sometimes an “important" message may simply say, “Haven't heard from you in ages. Are you okay? #important." ;-)
Perhaps other CC members will chime in and discuss their own “text-pectations" and how their children have—or haven't—met them.